Video Game Review – Divinity: Original Sin 2

Divinity: Original Sin 2 (D:OS2) is amazing and Larian Studio has earned my Kickstarter money! If you like RPGs with great writing and detail, you should be throwing your money at the developer. It’s not a perfect game, but it is very close. If you loved Baldur’s Gate and wish there were more games out there like it, this is your game. D:OS2 has earned the 95% Metacritic rating!

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I concur. It’s awesome!

D:OS2 is great because the writers really took the time to develop a story which is easy to follow, but has a depth and intricacy that I became immersed in. The character development, especially in the playable companions, is exceptional. I only played through once, so I only experienced four of the seven potential character stories. While I enjoyed each of them, I have to say that Lohse is a MUST HAVE as a companion! No spoilers, but her personal quest was exceptionally well done and rewarding at its conclusion. Thank you, Larian Studios!

In my playthrough, rather than go with a custom character and background I decided to use an established Origin Story for my main character. I didn’t regret it. Also, once you get to a certain point in the game, fairly early, you can freely respect and customize all your characters at nearly any time in the game. So, don’t stress too much at character creation.

Complementing the writing and characters is a complex and difficult turn-based tactical combat system that will often frustrate. Every battle on Classic mode felt like the characters were hopelessly outgunned and I had to reload many battles to develop alternative strategies to defeat the enemies. Use of the environment is critical to success and the enemy will always use the environment and complimentary status effects against you. I quickly realized also that I should never get comfortable in battles – many times when I thought I had the upper hand in battle (especially boss battles), another seemingly insurmountable challenge would appear.  “Oh, crap,” and other expletives were often used as I played the game and each was a compliment to the writers and developers.

Though I won the game, I feel like there are so many loose ends, missed opportunities, and different quest strings left to be explored. D:OS2 is definitely replayable on many levels if you have another 70+ hours to spend playing through it again.

If I had one gripe it would be inventory management. There is so much detail in this game that I still don’t know what half the stuff in my inventory does, but I didn’t want to get rid of it (just in case it was important). Also, every time I got a new random piece of gear it felt like I had to remove myself from the immersion to take quite a bit of time figuring out what gear was best for my current character build. It’s another layer of the strategy, but it felt cumbersome at times. The crafting system is complex, but helped along by the many recipe books found throughout the world. Some of the quest lines seem to be broken, but it could also be that my decisions may have prevented me from completing those quests.

I loved this game and I hope you will to! Well worth the $45 to buy and experience now rather than wait for a Steam sale.

Podcast Review: The Magnus Archives

The best horror isn’t jump scares or torture porn, it is the unease of the familiar shifted two degrees to the right.  It is the idea of one’s regular life interrupted by something unknowable and thus unstoppable.  It is the five seconds it takes to turn the lights off in the basement and then walk up the stairs, refusing to look behind you just in case.  It is the ‘bump in the night’ that knocks on the front door and invites itself in to visit – and never leaves.

I love horror but most of the modern stuff has me rolling my eyes and checking my watch.  That was until I started listening to ‘The Magnus Archives’.

The Magnus Archives is a recent discovery of mine but it has been around for about two years now and quickly gained a rabid and intensely loyal following.  It follows an Archivist – or librarian – for a London-based occult research agency called the Magnus Institute.  They have been around for a long time and they collect statements of people who have had unexplained encounters with the supernatural.  Each episode consists of the Archivist reading a statement from a past case with follow up commentary from the Institute’s investigation into the matter.

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It may sound boring but the nothing could be further from the truth because frankly, the stories contained within the statements is the absolute best horror stories I have heard in years.  The stories run the gamut of supernatural lore.  The stories aren’t garish or over-the-top with gore and obscenity screaming demons – most of the statements portray regular people giving matter of fact statements as they try to work out what just happened in their lives.  But the incidents themselves are unsettling – some of the standout episodes involved getting lost in a peculiar slaughterhouse, a statement of World War I soldier who may have encountered Death himself, and a guy who notices a horrible odor coming from the apartment above him.

The stories are aided by the minimalistic production values.  The audio is purposefully lo-fi and the music/effects are kept to a minimum – after all, these are statements being read in the basement of an academic institute.  But because they are sparingly used, they are more effective for it.  Additionally, the casting has been brilliant.  This is a show made in England, so the voices and the setting of a majority of the story are British with all the cultural nuances intact.  There hasn’t been a voice yet that was jarring or incongruous.

The best part of the Magnus Archives for me has been the progression of the story.  The initial setup was the new Archivist – replacing the previous one who had mysteriously disappeared – reading standalone statements. It quickly becomes apparent there is a common thread among the various statements and as the series has progressed, new players and questions about the panoply of threats facing the Archivist and the Institute.  To say even a word about it would spoil the surprise but the stakes rise with each new revelation.  In the beginning episodes, the Archivist was calm and collected in reading the statements.  By the end of the recent episodes, he is harried and desperate as he attempts to find answers in the pages he is reading.

The Magnus Archives has quickly become my favorite fiction podcast.  There are other horror podcasts out there but nothing this expansive, interesting, and well-done.  They’ve just completed season two and there are eighty episodes ready to explore with season three resuming in November/December.  The creators of the podcast have indicated they have a master plan for the plotline that will take the show through several more seasons.

If you are in a mood for REAL horror – you need to be listening to this podcast.

TV Review: Star Trek: Discovery

I’ll admit it – I have been to a Star Trek Convention and had the time of my life!

I have been a fan of all things science fiction since I was kid but there have been two series which have defined the genre for me:  Star Wars and Star Trek.  Star Wars will always have a place in my heart and I love the films but honestly, I have always been more of a Star Trek kind of guy.  The idea of a military organization dedicated to exploration and adventure among the stars coupled with the hopeful vision of the future has always appealed to me.  As I got older, I appreciated a bit of ‘darkening’ in the vision – the Dominion War arc in DS9 remains one of my favorite extended series of episodes.  When it was announced there was going to be a new Star Wars series after a ten-year absence, I was excited to see where it was going to go….

…and I’m happy to say the first two episodes were worthy additions!

The new series is set ten years before the original series and apparently is going to chronicle a total war between the Klingon Empire and the Federation.  Although the setting is a decade before the original series, the sets and effects owe more to the clean elegant lines and lens flares of the JJ Abrams ‘Trek’.  However, the comedic angle of his films is toned way down here despite the aesthetic similarities and Star Fleet is portrayed as a clearly military organization – explorers certainly, but serious-minded professionals with a clear hierarchy and mission.

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The acting was quite good in the show but clearly Sonequa Martin-Green is front and center here as Commander Michael Burnham.  Honestly, I found a few quibbles with her character – I thought one of her critical decisions she made in the first episode to be a bit jarring.  I also think the Vulcan-Human connection was a little too much fan service and unnecessary for the story – the specific personality makeup the story demands of the character could have been achieved in a host of other ways which were more interesting than wheeling out some reused Sarek Vulcan-Human child angle.

Quibbles aside, Ms. Green’s performance was awesome.  She presented a rare sort of Star Fleet character not seen before – the deadly serious professional with real character flaws which leads to real consequences.  Ms. Green painted a realistic character who is appealing and worth cheering for her bravery while at the same time condemning her for her judgment.  She is a character that clearly needs to grow – and I’m invested in watching the journey.

The two episodes serve as a ‘prequel’ to the main story – the titular ship, ‘USS Discovery’, isn’t even mentioned in the two episodes and they end with a cliffhanger for the main character.  It is a ‘twist’ ending and not very classic Star Trek in feel – but one can’t argue that it wasn’t entirely earned.  It is perhaps the best thing about the double episode release for the premiere – without knowing the details of next week, I’m assuming it sets up the story to progress.

I’m old enough to have seen every Star Trek television premiere except for the original show and I believe this was the strongest of the ones I have seen.  Time will tell if the show is more TNG and DS9 versus Voyager but I’m hooked and along for the ride.  It is worth subscribing to watch and I can’t wait for next week’s episode.

 

Movie Review: Kingsman – The Golden Circle

I rarely go into movies cold.  I have usually read a review or two, seen a couple of trailers, and have a general idea of what I’m getting into based off the director’s previous work.  A few years ago, I went to see Kingsman after coming back from a deployment – I hadn’t seen any trailers, reviews, or even knew who the director was when I bought a ticket.  I just knew I wanted to go see a movie that day.

I was delighted by the film.  Matthew Vaughn had tapped into the irreverent energy and anarchic ‘anything goes’ vibe from Kick-Ass and created a stylish over-the-top movie of gentlemen spies in a modern era.  It was a great coming of age story with sly winks at the screen, violence as slapstick, and buoyed by impossibly cool performances from all involved.  I knew when it was over I wanted to see more Kingsman adventures.

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Two of these three statements are unfortunately true.

Unfortunately, I no longer have that feeling because the follow-up Kingsman:  The Golden Circle was awful.

This inferior sequel should have worked.  The Director was the same and it is buoyed by a strong cast:  Colin Firth, Pedro Pascal, Julianne Moore, Mark Strong – this should have been a slam dunk but between the insipid story and the bizarre performances, it drops dead on the floor early on and pretty much stays there.  Colin Firth and Taron Egerton brought none of their chemistry forward from the first film.  Julianne Moore tries hamming it up but the otherwise outstanding actress just comes across as clownish.  Pedro Pascal – a big draw for the ladies – demonstrates none of the charisma which is his signature.  Halle Berry, Jeff Bridges, and Channing Tatum are wasted.  Only Mark Strong demonstrates any sort of presence in this otherwise dim film.

Oh, I like Elton John but keep him the hell out of movies if you can’t find a better use for him than this crap.

It may seem like I hate this film and you would be right – I had high hopes and I was very disappointed.  It didn’t have to be this way and I for the life of me can’t figure out how they screwed up so bad.  Even the trademark irreverence from the first film was absent – so absent that it linked a key plot point in the film to what amounts to a sexual assault.  The first film would have made such a thing work and had me laughing – the second film just left me uncomfortable and repulsed by it.

Ultimately, I just want to forget this movie exists.  I suggest you save your time and money for something else more worthwhile.